The well-dressed political elite of the fourth estate were in an unusually subdued mood as the Mid-Winter Ball in Parliament House kicked off last night, as they marked what will be — for all too many of them — their last parliamentary ball.

Concerns about sweeping job cuts at Fairfax and News Limited, combined with the shock of recent asylum-seeker drownings, cast a pall over some of the 600 party goers. Apparently alcohol consumption was not affected.

One Fairfax journo said some colleagues were in “a bit of a funk” about their careers, while press gallery president Phil Hudson said there was “a more sombre tone” to the annual shindig of journalists, politicians and lobbyists who fight it out for a ticket.

Sydney Morning Herald political correspondent Phil Coorey won the Paul Lyneham award for excellence in journalism, dedicating it to his colleagues at Fairfax while sparing a thought for those over the border at News.

But journalists are not by nature party-poopers, and the mood lifted at a mash-up video montage of pollies and journos miming along to The Black Eyed Peas’ I Gotta Feeling. The video included such pearlers as Anthony Albanese dancing on his office table, Barnaby Joyce performing “some kind of guitar” on his knees, Bronwyn Bishop beckoning a young journo over for a dance, and Wayne Swan throwing his wallet around and slapping down a $50 note to music. We’re sure it’d be a YouTube cult hit, except the Nine News crew who created it are refusing to make it public.

As the ball kicked off, Julia Gillard made an entry in a long, fitted and dark-blue gown with a Cleopatra-esque neckline — hands down the best dress she’s worn to the annual dinner as PM. Still, Tim Mathieson’s blue bow tie and matching pocket handkerchief had a slight year 10 formal air to it.

But it was Gillard’s traditional ball oration more than her frock that turned heads. She told the crowd she had two speeches — one, more sombre, in light of recent events; the other full of jokes. A show of hands plumped for the latter, and she proceeded to tell a string of “quite detailed” jokes, without notes.

Gillard expressed sympathy for those at Fairfax and News who were uncertain about their jobs, saying she “didn’t know what it would be like to wake up every morning not knowing if I had a job”. She also mischievously admitted to an affair with Dennis Shanahan.

Tony Abbott’s speech was described as “brief, bland and average” and “flat”. After a rather hectic day in Parliament, he scrubbed up in the only way a Liberal leader can: with a shiny blue tie. Margie Abbott was leading the black-lace brigade with a mumsy sheer arms number, but she would have been better accessorised with a smile.

A parting gag from Abbott about how Channel Seven had “made” Kevin Rudd, so Channel Nine could make Abbott prime minister, sparked post-speech disembowelling by journalists.

Abbott’s speech prompted MC Julian Morrow of Chaser pedigree to say: “Tony, it’s true what they say, you can really stop the jokes.”

Malcolm Turnbull wore a dashing Chinese-style blue top instead of the traditional black tie. He seemed in good spirits, working his many glamorous contacts in the media. There was no hint of a repeat of the clash with staffer Andrew Charlton, which made headlines at a previous ball.

Hudson recalled that event as he noted the long tradition of the ball taking place amid an atmosphere of high political drama, as it did last night with the tense debate over asylum-seeker policy. Kevin Rudd’s fiery speech at the ball two years ago, in which he laid into the mining industry (and was deposed within a week) was playing on some attendees’ minds last night.

But it’s not all about politics; some ball-goers let their fashion do the talking. In the case of Therese Rein, however, we’re not quite sure what it was supposed to say. She looked like a sequinned present.

Kudos to Joe Hockey for putting politics aside and wearing a red tie. Wayne Swan’s wife Kim chose a fun bright-purple party number, but it could have done with an iron.

Bill Shorten has certainly done well for himself, turning up with immaculately presented wife Chloe Shorten, the Governor-General’s daughter.

Julie Bishop continues to have the best arms in Parliament House. She makes Madonna look lazy. Her intricate black lace and nude gown was interesting, but didn’t top her 2010 glimmering silver bonanza.

Christine Milne proved her green credentials with a vintage-looking sequinned dress that resembled bird wings. We liked it a lot. Her boy-band-handsome son nearly stole the spotlight from his famous mum in a slick tuxedo.

Adam Bandt and his partner Claudia Perkins represented the seat of Melbourne in the only way possible: him in a Mad Men-style black suit and dark-rimmed glasses, her in black lace, red lips, a heavy fringe and a “too cool for this” pout.

Penny Wong and Sophie Allouache were the babes in black, while George Brandis continued the strong Liberal tradition of having a photogenic daughter (think Tony Abbott and Ted Baillieu).

Crikey spies reported AAP’s Julian Drape and Labor staffer Maria Hawthorne were two stand-outs on the dance-floor, with Albanese and Sarah Hanson-Young also spotted getting their groove on (not together). Dancing types wound up at the Durham in Kingston’s Green Square. They were kicked out around 4am.

The ball raised $300,000 for charity, which went to the Warwick Foundation, The Cerebral Palsy Alliance, Autism Asperger ACT, and Royal Life Saving Society. Thirteen years of balls have raised $2.1 million for charity — proof, Hudson says, that the show should go on even when times are tough.